Four Words

I love the way that certain words on occasion take hold of my mind. This was especially common when I was in school. The first time was when I was in college taking a class in Cultural Anthropology. We were studying some of the classics: Geertz, Mauss, Levi-Strauss. But it was Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger that really stuck, and in particular one specific word from her lexicon: Liminal.

The word liminal pitched camp in my brain for several months. I found myself repeating it over and over, turning it over with my tongue. Liminal. I dissected it, extracted level after level of meaning and cultural relevance. Liminal, an adjective that on its surface describes something in-between, explained everything there was to know about cultural practices, national borders and societal classes.

A couple years later I took a class on Feminist Theory and another word took over my world. I was transfixed by the French theorists Helene Cixous and Catherine Clement, and the word they introduced to me: Jouissance. I loved the sound of it; I loved saying it out loud. Just the iteration from one syllable to the next turned me on. Jou-i-ssance. Jouissance explained everything there was to understand about patriarchy and women’s sexuality. It showed me the power that women hold within themselves and the need for us to exert this power outside ourselves. Jouissance made me a feminist.

Jouissance took me all the way to graduate school, where I studied feminist psychology. But soon after I started, a word from psychoanalytic and post-structural theory replaced jouissance and turned my world upside down. Two words to be precise: The Abject. The words stuck to my teeth and clung to the back of my throat. The Abject. I sang the words to myself while going to sleep and repeated them in rhythm in the shower in the morning. Not a lullaby, and not a cheerful wakeup call either; the Abject was forceful and sharp.

But still the Abject didn’t bother me. Quite the opposite—it enthralled me. The Abject unlocked all there was to understand about violence and war, and how kind-hearted people couple fill themselves with so much hate. Contemporary world politics were suddenly laid out simply and clearly on a dinner plate. The Abject. It unlocked drawer after drawer of human suffering and it explained why so many people had no awareness of their own unhappiness. It was all about the Abject.

Soon after this I learned another word just as powerful: Ambivalence. Ambivalence didn’t need much chewing—it slid in and out of my mouth and gums without any effort. I thought it held a lovely ring; though I had known the word for several years, I had never considered its dimensions before. If the Abject held the keys to unlock the meaning of human suffering, then Ambivalence held the power to heal that suffering.

And so Ambivalence married the Abject in my mind. They had a lovely ceremony. No one wore white—just tasteful golds, reds and black ties. Ambivalence soothed the rough edges of the Abject and the Abject kept Ambivalence on its toes. I still see them romping around from time to time. They occasionally insert themselves in an intellectual discussion or psychoanalytic rant. But then they retreat back into their marital bliss. If only we all could have it so good.

March 9, 2013  2 Comments


The other day as I was driving home from work and Melissa Block’s voice from All Things Considered was taking over my car as usual, I switched my radio over to what I like to call my smooth tunes station: a guilty mix of 80’s “soft rock,” 90’s “adult contemporary,” and recent mellow radio hits. Out of my speakers, into my car and through my body flowed Sade’s crooning voice:

I still really, really love you…

Immediately I thought of my old roommate Adela and that apartment on Lapidge Street near 18th and Valencia. I was transported twelve years ago when I finagled my first apartment in San Francisco. It was at the height of the dot com boom when a job was easier to find than a drag queen and a place to live was harder to find than a Republican in San Francisco.

I thought I had struck gold: a large, sunny room with bay windows in a two-bedroom Edwardian flat in the heart of the Mission district for just 400 dollars a month. However, there was a catch—the girl who I was to sublet the room from hadn’t told her roommate that she was to be moving out, and I was to be moving in. “Just a technical detail we’ll deal with before you move in,” she said.

Surprisingly Adela took to me okay. After lecturing me on how unfair it was that she did not get to choose her own roommate, she ended our first conversation with, “Don’t worry, we’ll be friends.”

Adela was a transgendered Cuban woman in her mid-40s. She was lean and strong and towered over me in her heals at over six feet. She spoke with a thick accent that often left me nodding and smiling when she spoke quickly, not able to translate her Latin lisp and pronunciations. I was amused when Adela would often remark about people with English accents, “I can never understand a word they say. All I hear is ‘fa fa fa fa fa.’”

The day I moved in, I pulled the moving truck in front of the building and waited with a friend—a woman as reluctant as myself to carry heavy items—to see if any other friends would show up to help us carry the boxes and furniture pieces up the two flights of stairs. We were content to put off the inevitable pain of lifting bending and maneuvering for as long as possible.

Then Adela came out of the front door. “Can I help?” she said.

“Sure,” I said, “but that’s really heavy.”

“Don’t worry, I got it,” she said, lifting the large, out of date television set above her head in one fell swoop, and marching up the stairs, her high heels clicking behind her.

“That was so hot,” my friend exclaimed.

I quickly discovered after moving in that my and Adela’s daily schedules diverged radically, but this actually worked out well. As I was winding down to go to bed at ten, she was winding up to go out. Each evening as I brushed my teeth and got into my pajamas, I would be lulled and comforted by the sound of Sade’s soulful singing:

Ooh, when you’re co-old, I’ll be there to hold you tight… baby.

At a time in my life when I was chasing a different girl practically every week, was trying out new friends every month and was bringing home girls from bars I had just met, it was nice to have something consistent to rely on.

Adela would spend almost two hours prepping herself to go out. I would spend that two hours reading in bed, listening to my own music, watching television or starring up at the sky blue painted ceiling of my room. All the while I heard Sade in the background; Adela would play other artists, as well, but Sade made several appearances each night. As the time of departure neared, a posse of young men—boys they seemed—would begin to gather in Adela’s room. It was usually the same boys every night, and they were always polite and unobtrusive, so the late evening socializing never bothered me. Then, as if on queue, just as I was about to turn off my light at midnight, the posse with Adela at the lead would leave the apartment and me to my peaceful slumber.

Adela would come home so late (or so early, depending on how you saw it) that it would never wake me. In the morning when I would get ready for work, she would be fast asleep and the apartment completely silent.

The only other time of the day our schedules crossed paths was during the early evenings after I came home from work. She would cook pork and cabbage in great big pots with herbs and onions so aromatic the meat smelled good to my vegetarian olfactory senses. I would make my standard fair of tofu stir fry or pasta and sauce, and she would frown at it and say, “that looks good, too.”

Adela and I, we had a good thing going for a while. For at least six months, anyway, until her best friend from Florida, Carmen, came to live with us, and I discovered what was going on in her our apartment during those wee, early mornings after she came home and before the sun came up.

To be completely honest, things started to fall apart before Carmen moved in. In my mind, tension started building when she was short on rent one month. “Not to worry,” she told me. She would find a way to pay her share somehow, she always did. Soon after one Saturday afternoon Adela came into the apartment carrying an old computer. “Look,” she told me, her eyes beaming with excitement, “I found it on the street!”

The next morning we were woken by the sounds of yelling voices and objects being thrown and crashed across rooms from the apartment below us. “It’s ruined! It’s all gone!” I heard one of the women screaming at the other as I looked out my front window to see the drama between the two women bursting out of their apartment and into the street below.

I was intensely curious and somewhat concerned as to what had caused this drama between our cordial and subdued neighbors: two women who always exchanged pleasantries with me in the hall and who we never before heard a peep from above. But when I saw the flyer in the street later that day, I immediately understood.

LOST COMPUTER. $200 Reward. Contains the only draft of my thesis paper.

Adela saw the flyer, too. She held up a copy of it to me and said with a smile, “We got our rent money.”

I lost a lot of respect for Adela that day. I didn’t understand how someone could feel okay with taking advantage of someone they knew: the neighbor who had lived right below her and had put up with her music playing and the troops of feet marching across her ceiling every night for several years. It made me feel a little sick. I also stopped trusting her; what would she be willing to do to me for personal gain?

Carmen arrived shortly after. She slept on the living room couch, and spent most of the rest of her time in Adela’s room. Carmen was also a transgendered Cuban woman, but was curvier than Adela. She had invested a lot of money into her feminine shape and had traveled to Thailand on several occasions to get breast, hip and butt implants. Her English was not good, so she spoke to me very little.

With Carmen around, the apartment felt crowded, and despite the fact that Carmen was helping Adela out on rent, I wasn’t paying any less. I felt largely confined to my bedroom those days, even eating my dinners in there. There wasn’t much room for me in the kitchen or living room with Adela and Carmen filling the space with their conversations in Spanish, heavy in exclamations, boisterous movements and hand gestures.

Then one night, in the middle of the night, I woke up badly needing a glass of water. I quietly came out of my room, down the hall, and as I was about to enter the living room to get to the kitchen, I was startled by Carmen, on top of a man on the couch, giving him a blow job.

She turned her head up and looked at me with horror in her eyes. I ran back to my room and closed the door, now becoming privy to the sounds of Adela pleasuring a man in her room, as well.

The next day Adela came to talk to me. It was the last straw—for both of us, for sure, as I now felt more uncomfortable than ever in that space—but more, it seemed, for her. I had crossed a line: an invisible barrier that had been erected maybe when Carmen arrived, or maybe long before that dictated where I was allowed to move through and when in the apartment.

Adela gave me the standard 30 days to find a new place, but I packed up several of my things along with my cat (her relationship with Adela also greatly suffered after she knocked over some flowers, broke a vase and made Adela cry), and moved in with my girlfriend of the month until I found a new place.

I found a studio apartment for more than twice the price and less than half the space. The main room was smaller than my old bedroom. But it would work, and would be the first place I would ever call completely my own.

The excitement of having my own space resided soon, however, and I found myself missing the apartment on Lapidge Street that was too good to be true. Not just the big bay windows and the short walk to my favorite taqueria and lesbian bar, but also Adela and our nightly ritual that left me feeling less alone. I missed the sounds of Sade and the voices of Adela and her troop of boys seeping through my walls. It was just me in my bed those days and it would be just me when I woke in the morning and when I went to bed the next night. But that was okay because Adela and I, we had a good thing going, and it would all start again the next night.

March 3, 2013  2 Comments

Take These Parts (Excerpt from Chapter 3)

Here’s a short excerpt from the novel I am working on, which has a working title of Take These Parts. This excerpt is from start of Chapter three:

Celia looks out the car window; the yellow and brown sign for the Chinese Food and Donut Shop is riddled with wires and rust, and the large glass windows have been severely scratched and marked with graffiti. Next to the donut shop sits a closed-down tire store with a large metal gate and some tires stacked in front of the entrance tied down with thick rusted chains. Across the street sits an apartment complex. This is where Kaleb must be staying, she thinks, then steadies herself by examining it with a critical eye. The building is gray-blue, perhaps once bright blue, with a sign labeled La Casasita hanging in the front in large cursive letters that were once white but now resemble more of a yellowish tan. Bars hang on the windows and discarded newspapers and trash litter the entrance way. Celia would prefer not to think of her son living in such dank quarters, but she supposes it could be a lot worse. She exits the car and prepares to cross the street to look for him.

“Mom,” she hears Kaleb’s voice. She turns around and finds him standing behind her smoking a cigarette. Her son’s hair has grown past his chin and his face is covered with a beard and mustache. He looks older, thinner and shorter than she remembers him from two years ago. His hair covered much of his face then, too, but it hadn’t grown longer than his cheekbones, and his chin had barely begun sprouting hairs.

“Kaleb!” she reaches for her son’s hand and impulsively grabs onto his shoulders and pulls them to her. She is taken aback by a strong, unpleasant odor that is difficult to place. He pulls away quickly and waves his hand forward requesting her to follow him, then begins walking to the entrance of the donut shop. She should not expect too much too soon, she says to herself. It is natural that they need to warm up more. God knows what he must think of the entire family. Of course it was Rick who kicked him out, but it’s possible he blames her, too. She will finally make it clear whose side she is on.

They sit at a table by one of the windows. “Can I get you something?” she says looking into her son’s eyes.

“Just coffee,” he says refusing to meet hers.

“Anything in it?” she fumbles for her wallet in her purse then thinks otherwise and decides not to leave it hanging from the brown, vinyl chair.

“No, black.”

An Asian man at the counter looks up from his newspaper and raises his eyebrows. Trays of food in the display house several varieties of donuts, plus a platter of noodles, red chicken and beef strips.

“Just two coffees, please.” The man pours the coffee into Styrofoam cups without a word.

“Cream?” she asks. He points to a rack of sugars, salts and creamers on the right side of the counter. “Yes, of course!” she says, feeling embarrassed for her oversight.

“Two-fifty,” the man says.

Celia hands him three dollars. “Keep the change,” she looks at him and smiles. He holds out the two quarters for a moment then returns them to the cash register without remark or gesture. Celia takes the coffees and returns to the table. Kaleb is smoking another cigarette. She waves the smoke away and coughs a little, and looks to the man at the counter, who doesn’t seem to notice or care that a patron is smoking in his establishment.

“So…” she says, wanting to attempt conversation, but feeling stumped for words. Kaleb takes a sip of the coffee and then coughs heartedly into his hands. “Are you sick?”

“No, I’m alright.”

Her son’s fingers are swollen and the edges and beds of his nails are laced with black grit. The hair on his face has grown in patches and the rest of his face and neck are pink with pockmarks and acne. His black sweatshirt is full of holes but still manages to hide his arms and torso well. He used to wear black sweatshirts when he was living at home, too. But they were clean and the sleeves hugged his arms revealing the muscles in his shoulders. She imagined that he would grow up to be such a strong man. She thinks to pull out the money she promised him but hesitates. She wonders if he is still doing drugs. She wishes she could get a better look at him so she can tell. When she grabbed his shoulders earlier, she noticed they are bonier than they used to be and even with the baggy sweatshirt hiding most of the evidence, she can tell he is much thinner now. Her eyes well with tears at this realization.

“No. We’re not doing this.” Kaleb’s chair makes a loud squeak on the floor as he pushes it back and rises to leave. His words surprise her. She didn’t think he was paying attention to her.

“I’m sorry. I’ll stop,” she says and wipes her eyes.

“You know I can’t handle that.”

“I know.” Kaleb returns to his seat and the cigarette in his fingers.

“Well, are you doing alright?”

“I told you. I’m fine.”

“Are you doing drugs?”


“So, you’re clean now?”

“For six months.” Celia knows she shouldn’t believe him—he hasn’t given her any reason to—but she wants to so badly. Looking at him in his torn sweatshirt and unwashed hair, it’s the only kernel she has received from him so far that he might actually be doing okay, as he says he is.

“Kaleb, I want you to come home.”

“What? No. Hell no!” He shakes his head vigorously.

“You don’t belong here.”

“Don’t take this personal, Mom, but I like it better here than I did at your house.”

“I know that’s not true.”

He continues to shake his head.

“If this is about Kiley,” Celia instinctively lowers her voice even though Kiley is nowhere near, “she still doesn’t know about the bathroom incident and never will, okay? We’re all past that. And I…” She chooses her words carefully, “I think it was all a big misunderstanding anyway.”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“Kaleb, you’re a good kid!”

“Mom, look at me. I’m a homeless fuck up! Can you just accept that and leave me alone!”

He pushes his hair back with his fingers along his scalp and looks out the window. She remembers this move from countless family dinners: she would ask him questions and he would squirm and pull back his hair, then storm off. Now she has irritated him and he is being mean to get back at her. Even though she can see through him, it hurts. She is just trying to stick up for him. She feels the tears welling again. She pulls her wallet from her purse and removes the 250 dollars in cash and places it on the table between them. “Here’s your money,” her voice cracks. “You can count it, but it is all there.” She gets up preparing to leave, slowly, in hopes that Kaleb will stop her.

“Wait, Mom. Sit down,” he says.

She looks at him and wipes her eyes. “I’m sorry I’m crying again. I know you don’t like that.”

“Can we just not talk about the past? Or you wanting me to come home? Cause it’s not gonna happen. I know you can’t understand it, but it’s just not.” He swipes his hands through the air.

“Okay,” she responds weakly. She sips on her coffee, which is bitter and already beginning to cool to room temperature. She dumps another container of creamer into the cup, which still doesn’t take away the bitterness. She knows now that she spoke too soon about him moving home. She needs to prove she is trustworthy, that she won’t abandon him again. They just needs a little more time, she thinks. With a few more visits and more contact with the family, he would get there; she was sure of it. This thought brightens her mood and she looks up at her son who has lit another cigarette and is staring out the window. She looks with him to the apartment complex across the street.

“Can I see your place?” Kaleb’s shoulders bounce as he laughs, which spurs a coughing fit. “Well, why not?”

“Because you won’t like it.”

“How do you know? I haven’t always lived like this, you know. In a nice home. I’ve been there.” She thinks of the first apartment her and Rick shared after they graduated college, with stained carpets and a murphy bed. It was not so different than the complex across the street, though the exterior was much cleaner. Kaleb narrows his eyes. “I promise I won’t judge!” she says. He returns his gaze out the window. She thinks he must be thinking about it. “You tell me you don’t want to talk about the past or moving back home, so what else are we supposed to do?”

“We could take a walk.”

She watches an empty shopping bag flutter in the breeze outside. She doesn’t feel all that safe in this neighborhood; she is tough but not nearly as tough as him. But she doesn’t want to admit this and risk offending him. She squints and closes her eyes to think of how to explain it.

“Okay, fine!” he draws the words out and raises his voice. He stands up, takes the money on the table, and places it in his pants pocket. She is elated by the sudden turn in events. She doesn’t understand what caused this shift but she doesn’t dare question it. They exit the donut shop and Celia begins in the direction of the street. “Where are you going? I live over here.” Kaleb begins walking down the street towards the tire store. To her surprise, he turns into the gravel driveway of the store and heads toward it.

February 17, 2013  Leave a comment

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